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‘Greens’ Continue to Fight Against Greater Development in Highlands

At heart of matter: Acceptable levels of nitrate in soil and clean drinking water for millions of New Jerseyans

Fearful a new rule could lead to more development in the most sensitive parts of the Highlands, a committee yesterday moved to block the Christie administration from adopting the proposal.

Backed by environmental groups, the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee approved a resolution (ACR-192), a move proponents argued would protect drinking water supplies of millions of residents.

The proposal, unveiled earlier this year by the Department of Environmental Protection but not yet adopted, would increase the density of development in the preservation area of the Highlands, a step that would enhance opportunities for growth in the region.

But many conservationists view the regulation as the latest attempt by the Christie administration to roll back environmental regulations in the 860,000-acre region, much of it set aside for preservation when a law protecting the Highlands was enacted.

The resolution, if adopted by the Legislature, could rescind the rule, by declaring it inconsistent with legislative intent. The rarely used legislative tool stood up to legal scrutiny earlier this month when a state appeals court sided with lawmakers in blocking the administration’s attempts to weaken state civil-service protections.

In the past, the environmental community has pressed the Legislature to invoke the tool in other instances of the Christie administration overhauling or rescinding environmental programs. Those efforts, however, have been ineffective — either falling short of reversing rule changes, or merely winning a procedural victory.

The latest dispute revolves around a technical debate on what levels of nitrate may be absorbed into the soil, eventually leaching into groundwater supplies serving up to 6 million people. The rule would increase the density of septic tanks in the preservation area, a red flag to environmentalists because they are a primary source of nitrate pollution.

“This fits a trend we’ve seen of DEP playing fast and loose with science,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, in urging passage of the resolution. “At the end of the day, this is about do we need more or less development in the Highlands.’’

Ed Wengryn, a research associate at the New Jersey Farm Bureau, however, backed the new proposal, arguing it provides more data informing the department about establishing a suitable nitrate standard. “They are not done with the rulemaking process so it is premature to act now,’’ he said.

But Elliott Ruga, policy director for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, said the DEP is “proposing to erase the line drawn in 2004’’ and shoehorn as much development as possible into the region. He argued it would permanently imperil the fragile ecological balance provided by the forested expanse.

Others argued the rule is inconsistent with the Highlands Act because the law specifically precludes any degradation of water quality within the preservation area. Bill Kibler, director of policy for the Raritan Headwaters Association, said the trend in his watershed is that nitrate levels are increasing.

‘The DEP’s first obligation is to stop the numbers from going up and then to make it go down,’’ he said.

The DEP did not speak at the hearing, but has defended the rule as protecting water quality while allowing a minimal amount of growth. Many property owners have long complained about restrictions imposed on development ever since the law was enacted.

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